Levels of taboo language

Today’s Mother Goose and Grimm, on a linguistic theme:

Aside from the meta character of the strip — the dogs know they are characters in a cartoon — there’s their avoidance of the word bitch, as unsuitable for the strip, because the strip is carried by “family newspapers”, where women and children (notoriously delicate and easily damaged by words) might come across bitch (even used to refer to a female dog, not to mention in the idiom son of a bitch).

As I occasionally note here, in the world of taboo language, there are grades of offense: expressions that are classified by many dictionaries merely as informal, but are considered to be “impolite” (like bitch); expressions one level down (like crap and piss), classified by NOAD2, for example, as as vulgar slang  but which are usable in some public contexts (for instance, on general-view television networks); and expressions (like fuck and shit) that are barred from most public contexts.

Level 2 expressions are often discriminated according to whether they are used literally (crap referring to feces, piss to urine) or figuratively (exclamatory crap, crap ‘worthless stuff’, piss in piss off, etc.). Some tv shows seem to allow only figurative uses, but others — including two American series I’ve been binge-watching recent, Supernatural and Psych — allow both types of uses.

Level 3 expressions are out on general-view television in the U.S. This is a fact about expressions, not referents: shit is always out, crap is sometimes in (even with fecal reference).

One Response to “Levels of taboo language”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I thought that the point of this strip was not that the characters were avoiding the use of “bitch”, but rather that they were unaware that the “censors” they thought they had “gotten by” had bowdlerized the strip.

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